The Great Outdoors

Atlanta Home Improvement Magazine
Thursday, May 1, 2003

*This article features DeckWright, now known as MOSAIC Outdoor Living.

by Sharise Cunningham

American homes are performing a role reversal as our favorite indoor rooms move outdoors.

Photo courtesy of FrontgateWhether it’s the back yard, back nine, or back kitchen, the yard out back has become a new sort of oasis for today’s homeowners. Most industry designers and manufacturers agree that the recent boom in home refinancing and a renewed interest in nesting have led many homeowners to use the natural environment as the new living environment.

Room for Change
Some opt for cozy yet elaborate theme gardens, a few indulge their favorite pastime with personal putting greens but diehard nesters are creating outdoor living areas that incorporate the comforts of kitchen, den and living room into fully-functional outdoor rooms.

“Boomers have discovered that their backyard-if planned properly-can be the ultimate place to relax, unwind and rejuvenate,” says Stephen Prins, founder and chief designer of New England Arbors. “The biggest change is the amount [of money people are] willing to invest in high ticket items that offer both visual and physical pleasure,” he says.

The biggest trend in creating outdoor environments is that oftentimes no expense is spared to create an outdoor “living room” that is low maintenance and comfortable, but still incorporates luxuries such as heated floors, enhanced outdoor lighting, living room style furnishings and fabrics, fully-equippe kitchens and full-sized fireplaces. Many of these open-air rooms also make creative use of wood, stone and tile, include more functional decking systems and permanent outdoor entertainment systems.

Photo courtesy of DeckWrightRick Goldstein, an architect for Deckwright, says that open decks are very popular and come standard on any new house because they are one of the least expensive ways to expand living space outdoors.

Even though decks are the entertainment favorite, the screened porch is still holding its own. “The porch has redefined itself from a dark, dingy space that was under utilized, to an updated bright outdoor living room, complete with accessories such as tile flooring, fireplaces, hot tubs, TV, etc,” Goldstein says. Currently, Deckwright uses a lot of Ipe, a Brazilian hardwood in their deck designs because it’s elegant and rich, yet maintenance free; just hose it down with water and deck cleaner. While it may cost more upfront, it pays for itself in four to six years.

The desire to move outside walled boundaries means many of the principles of interior design are now applied to exterior design. We are beginning to see design-focused spaces that incorporate color, furniture, fireplaces and appliances, as well as electronics, all surrounded by carefully planned landscaping. Deckwright’s new focus reflects this trend by customizing its architecturally designed exterior projects.

Outdoor furniture
Outdoor FurnitureThe past few years have seen new outdoor furniture selections that feature softer fabrics, more design details, deep and inviting cushions and are designed for the ultimate in comfort and durability.

“If it is durable homeowners want it,” says Amy Crowley, spokesperson for Frontgate, a home environment direct retailer. “They’re not looking to replace their outdoor furnishings year after year anymore—just like they wouldn’t want to have to replace their indoor furniture [annually]”. This increased demand for materials that are going to last and withstand the elements makes materials such as teak, wrought iron, cast aluminum, weatherproof wicker and resin very popular, she says.

Teak is desired for its warm good looks, while the durability of iron and aluminum make them popular choices. Wrought iron has the added benefit of weight which means your furniture won’t blow away on windy days. While mixing materials can make for a beautiful piece of furniture, it can also create a maintenance quandary as different components may require different methods of upkeep. To maintain its original beauty, teak should be treated with a special oil or stain. Aluminum and iron can simply be hosed off.

The colors of nature are also popular this year. By using nature’s color palette you’re simply blending your outdoor room with the natural environment, adding to the visual extension of the room.

The American Furniture Manufacturers Association (AFMA) says to look for varying shades of brown such as khaki, bronze and rust for frames and fabrics. They also indicate that black and silver will have a big fashion presence for 2003 as well, with black and teak combined for an especially fresh look this year.

Other key trends in outdoor furniture for spring 2003 according to AFMA include:

Group seating: Tables are often several feet long and can accommodate 10 or more comfortably. Dining chairs are wider with higher backs for added comfort.

Conversation groups: These low seating groups are ideal for the outdoor casual lifestyle and are perfect for serving beverages and light foods, game playing or just conversing.

New tabletops: Alternative materials such as tumbled marble, tile, stone, slate, punched metal and other natural stones are replacing traditional glass.

Elevated seating: These high seats and tables are designed so that you can more easily enjoy the view over the rail of your deck or balcony.

Also popular are elevated bars with barstools for casual entertaining.

Cooking al fresco
More than just a grill, today’s elaborate outdoor kitchens are equipped to serve up gourmet meals for two or 20. Burgers and hotdogs are mere child’s play in these kitchens.

Cabana Kitchens is the first company to introduce an outdoor cooking unit with oven and broiler. An entry level outdoor setup that incorporates a stainless steel oven, broiler, grill, rotisserie, side burner and refrigerator compartment can cost as little as $6,000. Customize it even further with sink, wok, icemaker and custom surround and it can cost as much as $20,000 or more.

The move to not just dine—but cook—al fresco is due in part to materials that can better withstand the elements and the use of higher quality products in the kitchen and surrounding environment. “You used to see a concrete slab and a $199 [home improvement store] charcoal grill special,” says Ashley Williams of Cabana Kitchens. “Now,” he continues, “you see extravagant flooring, refrigeration, heating, fireplaces and lighting. It’s not just going outside, grilling a steak and bringing it back inside. You have the whole experience outdoors.”

Sales of high-end grill sales (those $2,500 and more) are up 40 percent, while gas grill sales are up just over 10 percent. Williams believes that the biggest trend in home kitchens will move from an aftermarket addition to a pre-construction design element. The current interest in adding outdoor rooms has led new homebuyers to seek homes that already include this feature.

For those who still love to cook outdoors but prefer more portable cooking options, the Big Green Egg or the Flattop Grill by Evo might be excellent choices. The commercial grade Flattop Grill is made of stainless steel, the round solid-steel cooking surface atop a triangular base gives it a charmingly deceptive look of simplicity. Its versatility allows you to cook directly on the flattop surface or use cookware. You can simultaneously sear meats and stir-fry vegetables. You can even bake, fry, boil, poach, grill, or smoke a variety of foods. Priced at $2,495, the Evo Flattop Grill packs a whole lot of kitchen in a shiny little package.

The egg-shaped Big Green Egg can grill and barbecue, but it’s probably best known for its ability to infuse meats with mouthwatering smoke flavoring fueled by interesting blends of aromatic woods such as fruit woods, Jack Daniels, and a variety of other exotic blends plus the traditional mesquite or hickory.

Big Green EggBased on the design of the Kamado, an ancient Asian clay cooker, its 1-and-a-halfinch ceramic walls retain heat, and the tight-fitting lid seals in moisture from the food, steeping it in smoke. Eggheads, as its fans are called, can choose from the diminutive 9-and-a-half-inch grid (cooking surface) Mini ($199), the 13-inch grid Small ($399), the 15-inch grid Medium ($599) and the granddaddy of them all, an 18.25-inch grid Large ($799). A number of accessories help customize the use of each green egg.

According to Williams, Florida and California have sold pre-constructed outdoor kitchens, or lanais, for years. Atlanta and the Midwest are beginning to see the same trend as new ideas in enclosures and heating create year-round outdoor rooms.

All fired up
Just as inside, a fireplace often provides a dramatic focal point for outdoor spaces. Over the past two years, full-sized real wood-burning or gas fireplaces began replacing the once-popular chiminea. The choices range from 36-inch to 50-inch fireplaces with stone surrounds, to the feisty and unique firepot, or the simple and portable fire dish.

You can make a dramatic statement with a space saving two-sided fireplace that’s designed to go in an outside wall, with the flames visible from either indoors or out. The cost is just a few hundred dollars more than a one-sided fireplace at around $3,000.

Kathy Heeth of The Fireplace Company has seen the largest growth in real-wood burning fireplaces with stacked stone or fieldstone as the most popular surrounds, which incorporate very well with the look of an outdoor kitchen. The pricing depends on the height of the chimneystack. A 36-inch fireplace with stonework can run $3,000 to $5,000, while the 50-inch—large enough to fit two people inside—can run $6,000 to $9,000. Heeth’s company uses the chimneystack to funnel smoke away from faces unlike open pits, which can annoy more than enjoy.
Homeowners are accessorizing their outdoor fireplace mantles with open flame gaslights to further enhance the environment by adding ambient lighting. “They’re so much more beautiful than a bright bulb sitting in your face,” Heeth says.

For a more rustic look, the Earthfire firepot might be just right. Much like the Big Green Egg smoker, the Earthfire is based on the Asian Kamado design. The Earthfire is a fusion of art and function. No two are the same because each one is completely handmade, numbered and signed with the artist’s insignia.

The Earthfire is finished in the Japanese process of Raku (“fire magic”), giving it a high gloss crackled finish with some color variation. Even the stand is made of hand-hammered wrought iron. It cost $1,900 for the wood burning model and $2,200 for the gas/propane model. Best of all, that investment can outlast your current home because when you move, the Earthfire can go with you.

Earthfire owner Sharon Black notes, “outdoor fireplaces are almost a necessity now. People love the warmth of a fire on cool, crisp evenings.” The Earthfire is safety-rated to stand just 18 inches from the wall and is very low maintenance. It’s touted to burn so efficiently that it can easily burn 15 to 20 fires
before it requires cleanup.

FireplaceMore economical options include portable campfires or fire dishes. A portable campfire can be used on a deck, patio or by the pool. These units average just a couple hundred dollars and have the appearance of a campground fire pit with a low simulated stacked-stone wall. For non-enclosed spaces, the open flame fire dish makes a fascinating statement as the dish looks like a huge black steel candleholder. They are available in 30-inch, 46 inch or 60 inch with choice of two stand styles. The gas model sells for $275 to $895. The wood burning model sells for $350 to $1,150.

Entertainment
Gone are the days of muffled music behind closed doors. The party can flow in a seemingly contiguous space from inside to outside as home entertainment systems take on the outdoors. Outdoor rooms can now be built to house and protect all of the equipment year round. While the components remain “inside,” camouflaged speakers can be placed throughout the yard and operated by remote control.

“Our products can’t be seen, they’re heard,” says Chris Thomas, marketing manager for Sensory Solutions, an audio/video design group. Sensory Solutions installs all-weather speakers, and outdoor video, audio and lighting controls. Some of the more unique methods for hiding speakers are placing them in speaker rocks, speaker gardens, hanging baskets or building them inside a stacked-stone fireplace.

Lights and heat
Lighting trends include fashionable floor lamps with water- and faderesistant shades, recessed lighting, open flame gaslights that reflect the charm of Charleston and mood-setting dimmer lights. Sensory Solutions uses an astronomical time clock to regulate lighting operation.

Outdoor heating can range from sophisticated heated floors to stainless steel outdoor heaters, much like those you see on restaurant patios. The cost of a heated floor will depend on a variety of factors including the size of the room to be heated. A stainless steel heater with enough output to heat up to a 15 foot radius will cost between $395 and $495.

Regarless of how elaborate your outdoor space is,, reconnecting with nature can be a great way to expand your home’s living and entertainment areas––not to mention for you to relax and unwind.

See the reprint of the article here (PDF).